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El-Shabazz[A] (Arabic: الحاجّ مالك الشباز), was an American Muslim minister and a human rights activist. To his admirers he was a courageous advocate for the rights of blacks, a man who indicted white America in the harshest terms for its crimes against black Americans; detractors accused him of preaching racism and violence. He has been called one of the greatest and most influential African Americans in history.
Malcolm X was effectively orphaned early in life. His father was killed when he was six and his mother was placed in a mental hospital when he was thirteen, after which he lived in a series of foster homes. In 1946, at age 20, he went to prison for larceny and breaking and entering. While in prison, Malcolm X became a member of the Nation of Islam, and after his parole in 1952, quickly rose to become one of the organization's most influential leaders, serving as the public face of the controversial group for a dozen years. In his autobiography, Malcolm X wrote proudly of some of the social achievements the Nation made while he was a member, particularly its free-of-cost drug rehabilitation program. In keeping with the Nation's teachings, he promoted black supremacy, advocated the separation of black and white Americans, and rejected the civil rights movement's emphasis on integration.
By March 1964, Malcolm X had grown disillusioned with the Nation of Islam and its leader Elijah Muhammad. Expressing many regrets about his time with them, which he had come to regard as largely wasted, he embraced Sunni Islam. After a period of travel in Africa and the Middle East which included completing the Hajj, he repudiated the Nation of Islam, disavowed racism and founded Muslim Mosque, Inc. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity. He continued to emphasize Pan-Africanism, black self-determination, and black self-defense.
In February 1965 he was assassinated by three Nation of Islam members. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, published shortly after his death, is considered one of the most influential nonfiction books of the 20th century.
Malcolm Little was born May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska, the fourth of seven children of Grenada-born Louise Helen Little (née Norton) and Georgia-born Earl Little. Earl was an outspoken Baptist lay speaker, admirer of Pan-African activist Marcus Garvey, and local leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) who inculcated self-reliance and black pride in his children. Malcolm X later said that violence by whites killed three of his father's brothers.
Because of Ku Klux Klan threats—Earl's UNIA activities were "spreading trouble"—the family relocated in 1926 to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and shortly thereafter to Lansing, Michigan, where the family was frequently harassed by the Black Legion, a white racist group. When the family home burned in 1929, Earl accused the Black Legion.
When Little was six his father was killed in what was officially ruled a streetcar accident, though Louise believed Earl had been murdered by the Black Legion. Rumors that white racists were responsible for his father's death were widely circulated, and were very disturbing to Malcolm X as a child. As an adult, he expressed conflicting beliefs on the question. After a dispute with creditors, a life insurance benefit (nominally $1,000—about $16,000 in 2014 dollars[B]) was paid to Louise in payments of $18 per month; the issuer of another, larger policy refused to pay, claiming suicide. To make ends meet Louise rented out part of her garden, and her sons hunted game.
In 1937 a man Louise had been dating—marriage had seemed a possibility—vanished from her life when she became pregnant with his child. In late 1938 she had a nervous breakdown and was committed to Kalamazoo State Hospital. The children were separated and sent to foster homes. Malcolm and his siblings secured her release 24 years later.
Malcolm Little excelled in junior high school but dropped out after a white teacher told him that practicing law, his aspiration at the time, was "no realistic goal for a nigger". Later Malcolm X recalled feeling that the white world offered no place for a career-oriented black man, regardless of talent.
From age 14 to 21 Little held a variety of jobs while living with his half-sister Ella Little-Collins in Roxbury, a largely African-American neighborhood of Boston. Then after a short time in Flint, Michigan, he moved to New York City's Harlem neighborhood in 1943, where he engaged in drug dealing, gambling, racketeering, robbery, and pimping; according to recent biographies, he also occasionally had sex with other men, usually for money.
He was called "Detroit Red" because of the reddish hair he inherited from his Scottish maternal grandfather. Little was declared "mentally disqualified for military service" after he told draft board officials he wanted to be sent down south to "organize them nigger soldiers ... steal us some guns, and kill us [some] crackers".
In late 1945, Little returned to Boston, where he and four accomplices committed a series of burglaries targeting wealthy white families. In 1946, he was arrested while picking up a stolen watch he had left at a shop for repairs, and in February began serving an eight-to-ten year sentence at Charlestown State Prison for larceny and breaking and entering.
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During Little's imprisonment he met fellow convict John Bembry, a self-educated man he would later describe as "the first man I had ever seen command total respect ... with words". Under Bembry's influence, Little developed a voracious appetite for reading.
At this time, several of his siblings wrote to him about the Nation of Islam, a relatively new religious movement preaching black self-reliance and, ultimately, the return of the African diaspora to Africa, where they would be free from white American and European domination. He showed scant interest at first, but after his brother Reginald wrote in 1948 "Malcolm, don't eat any more pork and don't smoke any more cigarettes. I'll show you how to get out of prison", he quit smoking and began to refuse pork. After a visit in which Reginald described the group's teachings, including the belief that white people are devils, Little came to the conclusion that every relationship he'd had with whites had been tainted by dishonesty, injustice, greed, and hatred. Little, whose hostility to religion had earned him the prison nickname "Satan", now became receptive to the message of the Nation of Islam.
In late 1948, Little wrote to Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. Muhammad advised him to renounce his past, humbly bow in prayer to Allah, and promise to never engage in destructive behavior again. Though he later recalled the inner struggle he experienced in bending his knees to pray, he soon became a member of the Nation of Islam. "Between Mr. Muhammad's teachings, my correspondence, my visitors—usually Ella and Reginald—and my reading of books", he later wrote, "months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I had never been so truly free in my life." From that time, he maintained a regular correspondence with Muhammad.
In 1950, the FBI opened a file on him after he wrote a letter from prison to President Truman expressing opposition to the Korean War and declaring himself a Communist. That year, Little also began signing his name "Malcolm X". He explained in his autobiography that the Muslim's "X" symbolized the true African family name that he could never know. "For me, my 'X' replaced the white slavemaster name of 'Little' which some blue-eyed devil named Little had imposed upon my paternal forebears."
After his parole in August 1952, Malcolm X visited Elijah Muhammad in Chicago. In June 1953 he was named assistant minister of the Nation's Temple Number One in Detroit.[C] Later that year he established Boston's Temple Number 11; in March 1954, he expanded Temple Number 12 in Philadelphia; and two months later he was selected to lead Temple Number 7 in Harlem, where he rapidly expanded its membership.
In 1953, the FBI began surveillance of him, turning its attention from Malcolm X's possible Communist associations to his rapid ascent in the Nation of Islam.
During 1955, Malcolm X continued his successful recruitment efforts on behalf of the organization. He established temples in Springfield, Massachusetts (Number 13); Hartford, Connecticut (Number 14); and Atlanta, Georgia (Number 15). Hundreds of African Americans were joining the Nation of Islam every month.
Beside his skill as a speaker, Malcolm X had an impressive physical presence. He stood 6 feet 3 inches (1.91 m) tall and weighed about 180 pounds (82 kg). One writer described him as "powerfully built", and another as "mesmerizingly handsome ... and always spotlessly well-groomed".
In 1955, Betty Sanders met Malcolm X after one of his lectures, then again at a dinner party; soon she was regularly attending his lectures. In 1956 she joined the Nation of Islam, changing her name to Betty X. One-on-one dates were contrary to the Nation's teachings, so the couple courted at social events with dozens or hundreds of others, and Malcolm X made a point of inviting her on the frequent group visits he led to New York City's museums and libraries.
Malcolm X proposed on a telephone call from Detroit in January 1958, and they married two days later. They had six daughters: Attallah (b. 1958, named after Attila the Hun);[D] Qubilah (b. 1960, named after Kublai Khan); Ilyasah (b. 1962, named after Elijah Muhammad); Gamilah Lumumba (b. 1964, named after Patrice Lumumba); and twins Malikah and Malaak (b. 1965 after their father's death, and named after him).
Malcolm X first came to the notice of the American public in 1957, after Johnson Hinton, a Nation of Islam member, was beaten by two New York City police officers. On April 26, Hinton and two other passersby—also Nation of Islam members—saw the police officers beating an African-American man with nightsticks. They attempted to intervene, shouting "You're not in Alabama...this is New York!" One of the officers turned on Hinton, beating him so severely that he suffered brain contusions and subdural hemorrhaging. All four men were then arrested.
Alerted by a witness, Malcolm X and a small group of Muslims went to the police station and demanded to see Hinton. Police initially denied that any Muslims were being held, but when the crowd grew to about five hundred they allowed Malcolm X to speak with Hinton, after which, at Malcolm X's insistence, an ambulance took Hinton to Harlem Hospital.
Hinton's injuries were treated and by the time he was returned to the police station, some four thousand people had gathered outside. Inside the station, Malcolm X and an attorney were making bail arrangements for two of the Muslims. Hinton was not bailed, and police said he could not go back to the hospital until his arraignment the following day. Considering the situation to be at an impasse, Malcolm X stepped outside the stationhouse and gave a hand signal to the crowd. Nation members silently left, after which the rest of the crowd also dispersed. One police officer told the New York Amsterdam News: "No one man should have that much power." Within a month Malcolm X was under surveillance by the New York City Police Department, which also made inquiries with authorities in other cities in which he had lived, and prisons in which he had served time.
A grand jury declined to indict the officers who beat Hinton, and in October, Malcolm X sent an angry telegram to the police commissioner. Soon undercover officers were assigned to infiltrate the Nation of Islam.
By the late 1950s, Malcolm X was using a new name, Malcolm Shabazz or Malik el-Shabazz, although he was still widely referred to as Malcolm X. His comments on issues and events were now being reported in print, on radio, and on television, and he was featured in a 1959 New York City television broadcast about the Nation of Islam, The Hate That Hate Produced.
In September 1960, at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, Malcolm X was invited to the official functions of several African nations. He met Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Ahmed Sékou Touré of Guinea, and Kenneth Kaunda of the Zambian African National Congress. Fidel Castro also attended the Assembly, and Malcolm X met publicly with him as part of a welcoming committee of Harlem community leaders. Castro was sufficiently impressed with Malcolm X to suggest a private meeting, and after two hours of talking Castro invited Malcolm X to visit Cuba.
From his adoption of the Nation of Islam in 1952 until he broke with it in 1964, Malcolm X promoted the Nation's teachings. These included the beliefs:
Many whites and some blacks were alarmed by Malcolm X and the things he said during this period. He and the Nation of Islam were described as hatemongers, black supremacists, racists, violence-seekers, segregationists, and a threat to improved race relations. He was accused of being antisemitic. One of the goals of the civil rights movement was to end disfranchisement of African Americans, but the Nation of Islam forbade its members from participating in the political process. Civil rights organizations denounced him and the Nation as irresponsible extremists whose views did not represent African Americans.
Malcolm X was equally critical of the civil rights movement. He labeled Martin Luther King Jr. a "chump" and other civil rights leaders "stooges" of the white establishment.[E] He called the 1963 March on Washington "the farce on Washington", and said he did not know why so many black people were excited about a demonstration "run by whites in front of a statue of a president who has been dead for a hundred years and who didn't like us when he was alive".
While the civil rights movement fought against racial segregation, Malcolm X advocated the complete separation of African Americans from whites. He proposed that African Americans should return to Africa, and that a separate country for black people in America should be created as an interim measure. He also rejected the civil rights movement's strategy of nonviolence, expressing the opinion that black people should defend and advance themselves "by any means necessary". His speeches had a powerful effect on his audiences, who were generally African Americans in northern and western cities. Many of them—tired of being told to wait for freedom, justice, equality and respect—felt that he articulated their complaints better than did the civil rights movement.
Malcolm X is widely regarded as the second most influential leader the Nation of Islam has had, after Elijah Muhammad. He was largely credited with the group's dramatic increase in membership between the early 1950s and early 1960s (from 500 to 25,000 by one estimate;[F] from 1,200 to 50,000 or 75,000 by another).[G]
He inspired the boxer Cassius Clay (later known as Muhammad Ali) to join the Nation. Malcolm X and Clay soon formed a very close friendship, which Clay's cornerman Ferdie Pacheco later described by saying the two "were like very close brothers". When Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam, he tried to convince Clay to join him in converting to Sunni Islam. Clay declined and refused to speak to him again; he later wrote "[t]urning my back on Malcolm was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life." (Ali later left the group to become a Sunni Muslim.)
Malcolm X mentored and guided Louis Farrakhan, the current leader of the Nation of Islam. Farrakhan was originally called Louis X within the Nation, but changed his name after Malcolm X recommended him to the position of Minister of the Nation's Muslim Mosque in Boston. When Malcolm X left the nation, Farrakhan immediately branded him a traitor, and demanded his death. In 1995, after Malcolm X's daughter Qubilah was charged for allegedly attempting to hire a hitman to assassinate Farrakhan, he reconciled with Malcolm X's family and helped her get the charges dropped. He later expressed remorse about his statements condemning Malcolm X. Malcolm X also served as a mentor to Elijah Muhammad's son, Warith Deen Muhammad. He was a confidant to Warith Deen, and the latter expressed to Malcolm X his skepticism of his father's "unorthodox approach" to Islam. Warith Deen was eventually "charged with trying to influence Malcolm's theological thinking" and subsequently excommunicated from the Nation of Islam, although he was eventually readmitted. After Malcolm X converted to Sunni Islam, W.D. Muhammad took inspiration from him and guided the Nation of Islam into orthodox Sunni Islam, wheareas Louis Farrakhan restarted the Nation of Islam as originally envisioned by founder Wallace Fard Muhammad. Through Malcolm X's example, W.D. Muhammad was able to influence Muhammad Ali to convert to Sunni Islam in 1975, despite Malcolm X being unable to convert Ali directly himself.
On December 1, 1963, when he was asked for a comment about the assassination of President Kennedy, Malcolm X said that it was a case of "chickens coming home to roost". He added that "chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they've always made me glad." The New York Times wrote, "in further criticism of Mr. Kennedy, the Muslim leader cited the murders of Patrice Lumumba, Congo leader, of Medgar Evers, civil rights leader, and of the Negro girls bombed earlier this year in a Birmingham church. These, he said, were instances of other 'chickens coming home to roost'." The remarks prompted a widespread public outcry. The Nation of Islam, which had sent a message of condolence to the Kennedy family and ordered its ministers not to comment on the assassination, publicly censured their former shining star. Although Malcolm X retained his post and rank as minister, he was prohibited from public speaking for 90 days.
Another source of tension had appeared between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad. There were rumors that Muhammad was conducting extramarital affairs with young Nation secretaries—which would constitute a serious violation of Nation teachings. After first discounting the rumors, Malcolm X came to believe them after he spoke with Muhammad's son Wallace and with the women making the accusations. Muhammad confirmed the rumors in 1963, attempting to justify his behavior by referring to precedents set by Biblical prophets.
Malcolm X had by now become a media favorite, and some Nation members were seeing him as a threat to Muhammad's leadership. Publishers had shown interest in Malcolm X's autobiography, and when Louis Lomax wrote his 1963 book about the Nation, When the Word Is Given, he used a photograph of Malcolm X on the cover and reproduced five of his speeches, but featured only one of Muhammad's—all of which greatly upset Muhammad and made him envious.
On March 8, 1964, Malcolm X publicly announced his break from the Nation of Islam. He was still a Muslim, he said, but felt that the Nation had "gone as far as it can" because of its rigid teachings. He planned to organize a black nationalist organization to "heighten the political consciousness" of African Americans; he also expressed a desire to work with other civil rights leaders, saying that Elijah Muhammad had prevented him from doing so in the past.
After leaving the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X founded Muslim Mosque, Inc., a religious organization, and the Organization of Afro-American Unity, a secular group that advocated Pan-Africanism. On March 26, 1964 he met Martin Luther King Jr. for the first and only time—and only long enough for photographs to be taken—in Washington, D.C. as both men attended the Senate's debate on the Civil Rights bill.[H] In April, Malcolm X gave a speech titled "The Ballot or the Bullet", in which he advised African Americans to exercise their right to vote wisely but cautioned that if the government continued to prevent African Americans from attaining full equality, it might be necessary for them to take up arms.
In April 1964, with financial help from his half-sister Ella Little-Collins, Malcolm X flew to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, as the start of his Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca obligatory for every Muslim who is able to do so. However, he was delayed in Jeddah when his U.S. citizenship and inability to speak Arabic caused his status as a Muslim to be questioned. He had received Abdul Rahman Hassan Azzam's book The Eternal Message of Muhammad with his visa approval, and he contacted the author. Azzam's son arranged for his release and lent him his personal hotel suite. The next morning he learned that Prince Faisal had designated him a state guest, and several days later, after completing the Hajj rituals, Malcolm X had an audience with the prince.
Malcolm X later said that seeing Muslims of "all colors, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans" interacting as equals led him to see Islam as a means by which racial problems could be overcome.
Malcolm X had already visited the United Arab Republic, Sudan, Nigeria, and Ghana in 1959 to make arrangements for a tour of Africa by Elijah Muhammad, and after his journey to Mecca, in 1964, he visited Africa a second time. He returned to the United States in late May and flew to Africa again in July. During these visits he met officials, gave interviews, and spoke on radio and television in Egypt, Ethiopia, Tanganyika, Nigeria, Ghana, Guinea, Sudan, Senegal, Liberia, Algeria, and Morocco. In Cairo, he attended the second meeting of the Organization of African Unity as a representative of the Organization of Afro-American Unity. By the end of this third visit he had met with essentially all of Africa's prominent leaders, and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, and Ahmed Ben Bella of Algeria had all invited Malcolm X to serve in their governments. After he spoke at the University of Ibadan, the Nigerian Muslim Students Association bestowed on him the honorary Yoruba name Omowale ("the son who has come home"). He later called this his most treasured honor.
On November 23, 1964, on his way home from Africa, Malcolm X stopped in Paris, where he spoke at the Salle de la Mutualité. A week later, on November 30, Malcolm X flew to the United Kingdom, and on December 3 took part in a debate at the Oxford Union Society. The motion was: "Extremism in the Defense of Liberty is No Vice; Moderation in the Pursuit of Justice is No Virtue". Malcolm X argued for the affirmative, and interest in the debate was so high that it was televised nationally by the BBC.
On February 5, 1965, Malcolm X flew to Britain again, and on February 8 he addressed the first meeting of the Council of African Organizations in London. The next day he tried to travel to France, but was refused entry.
On February 12, he visited Smethwick, near Birmingham, where the Conservative Party had won the parliamentary seat in the 1964 general election. The town had become a byword for racial division after Conservative supporters used the slogan "If you want a nigger for your neighbour, vote Labour." In Smethwick he compared the treatment of colored residents with the treatment of Jews under Hitler, saying: "I would not wait for the fascist element in Smethwick to erect gas ovens."
After leaving the Nation of Islam and traveling internationally, Malcolm X addressed a wide variety of audiences in the United States. He spoke regularly at meetings held by Muslim Mosque, Inc., and the Organization of Afro-American Unity, and was one of the most sought-after speakers on college campuses. One of his top aides later wrote that he "welcomed every opportunity to speak to college students." He also addressed public meetings of the Socialist Workers Party, speaking at their Militant Labor Forum. He was interviewed on the subjects of segregation and the Nation of Islam by Robert Penn Warren for Warren's 1965 book Who Speaks for the Negro?
Throughout 1964, as conflict with the Nation of Islam intensified, Malcolm X was repeatedly threatened.
In February a leader of Temple Number Seven ordered the bombing of Malcolm X's car. In March, Muhammad told Boston minister Louis X (later known as Louis Farrakhan) that "hypocrites like Malcolm should have their heads cut off"; the April 10 edition of Muhammad Speaks featured a cartoon depicting Malcolm X's bouncing, severed head.
On June 8, FBI surveillance recorded a telephone call in which Betty Shabazz was told that her husband was "as good as dead." Four days later, an FBI informant received a tip that "Malcolm X is going to be bumped off." (That same month the Nation sued to reclaim Malcolm X's residence in East Elmhurst, Queens, New York. His family was ordered to vacate but on February 14, 1965—the night before a hearing on postponing the eviction—the house was destroyed by fire.)
On July 9 Muhammad aide John Ali (later exposed as an undercover FBI agent) referred to Malcolm X by saying, "Anyone who opposes the Honorable Elijah Muhammad puts their life in jeopardy." In the December 4 issue of Muhammad Speaks, Louis X wrote that "such a man as Malcolm is worthy of death."
On February 19, 1965, Malcolm X told interviewer Gordon Parks that the Nation of Islam was actively trying to kill him.
On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was preparing to address the Organization of Afro-American Unity in Manhattan's Audubon Ballroom when someone in the 400-person audience yelled, "Nigger! Get your hand outta my pocket!" As Malcolm X and his bodyguards tried to quell the disturbance,[I] a man rushed forward and shot him once in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun and two other men charged the stage firing semi-automatic handguns. Malcolm X was pronounced dead at 3:30 pm, shortly after arriving at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. The autopsy identified 21 gunshot wounds to the chest, left shoulder, arms and legs, including ten buckshot wounds from the initial shotgun blast.
One gunman, Nation of Islam member Talmadge Hayer (also known as Thomas Hagan) was beaten by the crowd before police arrived; witnesses identified the others as Nation members Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson. All three were convicted in March 1966 and sentenced to life in prison. (At trial Hayer confessed, but refused to identify the other assailants except to assert that they were not Butler and Johnson; in 1977 and 1978 he reasserted their innocence and named four other Nation members as participants in the murder or its planning.)
Butler, today known as Muhammad Abdul Aziz, was paroled in 1985 and became the head of the Nation's Harlem mosque in 1998; he maintains his innocence. In prison Johnson, who changed his name to Khalil Islam, rejected the Nation's teachings and converted to Sunni Islam; released in 1987, he maintained his innocence until his death in August 2009. Hayer, today known as Mujahid Halim, was paroled in 2010.
The public viewing, February 23–26 at Unity Funeral Home in Harlem, was attended by some 14,000 to 30,000 mourners. For the funeral on February 27, loudspeakers were set up for the overflow crowd outside Harlem's thousand-seat Faith Temple of the Church of God in Christ, and a local television station carried the service live.
Among the civil rights leaders attending were John Lewis, Bayard Rustin, James Forman, James Farmer, Jesse Gray, and Andrew Young. Actor and activist Ossie Davis delivered the eulogy, describing Malcolm X as "our shining black prince":
There are those who will consider it their duty, as friends of the Negro people, to tell us to revile him, to flee, even from the presence of his memory, to save ourselves by writing him out of the history of our turbulent times. Many will ask what Harlem finds to honor in this stormy, controversial and bold young captain—and we will smile. Many will say turn away—away from this man, for he is not a man but a demon, a monster, a subverter and an enemy of the black man—and we will smile. They will say that he is of hate—a fanatic, a racist—who can only bring evil to the cause for which you struggle! And we will answer and say to them: Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm? Did you ever touch him, or have him smile at you? Did you ever really listen to him? Did he ever do a mean thing? Was he ever himself associated with violence or any public disturbance? For if you did you would know him. And if you knew him you would know why we must honor him.
Actor and activist Ruby Dee and Juanita Poitier (wife of Sidney Poitier) established the Committee of Concerned Mothers to raise money toward a home for the family and for the children's educations.
Malcolm X Day Atlanta, Ga. Pictures: http://bilalmahmud.zenfolio.com/p423674407